Ravens rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw works out during… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Courtney Upshaw once lived in a house with no electricity or running water. He slept some nights on a worn couch that barely contained his growing frame. He arrived at the University of Alabama with little more than the clothes he was wearing.
April 26, 2012 was supposed to be the night Upshaw would be rewarded for his perseverance. Yet as he sat in Radio City Music Hall in New York City, surrounded by friends and family, Upshaw fought back tears. He watched four of his college teammates become first-round draft picks. Upshaw kept waiting but his name wasn't called that night.
"I had high hopes and honestly I got teary-eyed," Upshaw said. "We went back to the hotel and we really prayed and we were hoping that Baltimore would draft me. It was a really tough night."
The Ravens ended Upshaw's wait, taking the outside linebacker with the third overall pick of the second round. As an NFL rookie, Upshaw, 23, has done what he's done all his life — adapt to a situation and make the best of it. He battled minor conditioning issues, a nagging shoulder injury and command of the playbook but he's become a reliable run stopper and a potential long-term replacement for Jarret Johnson. He has started 10 games and made 55 tackles for the Ravens who play the Denver Broncos on Saturday in an AFC divisional playoff game.
"We've had kids that were probably better than Courtney," said John Gilmore, an assistant football coach at Eufaula High (Ala.), where Upshaw developed into a top prospect in two seasons. "We've had some damn good football players that are in prison right now or were in prison. We tried to help them the same way we helped Courtney. But he took our help and he did the best he could. He knew this was his way out. He wanted to take care of his family, his brothers and sisters. He's going to be a good one in the NFL."
The first thing that Upshaw will tell you is that he doesn't remember a lot about his upbringing nor does he feel it was particularly unique. Upshaw gets dressed for practice about 5 yards away from the locker of offensive tackle Michael Oher whose own story was used as the basis for the hit movie, The Blind Side.
"Especially during the draft, [I told] this story. A lot of people said you should make a movie or write I book," Upshaw said. "I said, 'It's already been done.' Not only did Mike go through what I went through, there are a lot of other athletes that went through the same thing."
He also isn't overly eager to discuss it – "the way I grew up, the things I endured or encountered, I kind of have trust issues," he admits — but he is exceedingly polite and complies because it shines a positive light on friends and family members.
A helping hand
When Upshaw was about 5 years old his mother, Lisa Upshaw didn't feel like she had the time or resources to take care of him on a daily basis. As a result he was taken in by an aunt, Donnella Williams who had kids and financial pressures of her own. Still, she made sure that Upshaw and his siblings had food to eat and a place to stay. She mandated that they went to school, behaved and treated elders with respect.
"She raised us to be successful and to try to do something with ourselves," Upshaw said. "It wasn't always great times. That's just me being honest. Just moving from place-to-place, I know my last year of high school, I stayed with another aunt because we couldn't keep the lights on or pay the rent. I lived in public housing for a while. We stayed in a couple of houses but it was never long. It was tough, man. But I did have help and I made it with that help."
Upshaw didn't have much, but he was not the type to ask for more, but others, charmed by his polite and friendly demeanor, reached out to him.
The McKenzies, a white family who are University of Georgia fans, were among those touched by Upshaw. The family's relationship with Upshaw began when he was in kindergarten. That's when Will McKenzie, the youngest of Tom and Leigh's three kids, was involved in a fight and Upshaw stepped in to defend him. They grew so close that McKenzie came home from school in second grade and asked his parents if he could use his Christmas money to sign Upshaw up for organized basketball. To this day, Will and Upshaw say they are more brothers than friends.
"We'd always play sports and he was always the first person picked," said Will, now a senior in college. "I realized that he may not be in the best situation, but he should at least have a chance to do some of the things that I could do. The man grows and blossoms from difficulties and hardships in life. My parents, all they really did was give him opportunities that he may not have been able to get earlier. But he's the one that got himself to where he is now."